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local motives


Although the town is small and relatively random, there is one thing that drew me in about Bac Ha and once I’d learned of it, I couldn’t turn back: The Bac Ha Market. People come from all over Vietnam, both locals and tourists (mostly locals) to visit Bac Ha Market which happens only on Sundays. Gets set up the night before and broken down on Sunday evening. You know I luvvv a market, so this was a must. I told Alex I was getting up at 7am to get there when it starts. When I got to the market they were selling harem-ish style pants with embroidery from local tribeswomen. I tried on a bunch of pairs to find the right one. They were all pretty loose (so F you, tiny Hanoi clothes!) but this one pair that I really loved was kinda small. I try them on, and the lady at the stall is like (via body language, she doesn’t speak English), “they will get bigger! Just squat and they will get looser.” And I’m like (again, in body language), “no, they’re really small, I’m gonna rip them if I do that” and she’s like “No, no, please – squat! They will fit!” and I’m like “okayyy….” at which point I squat and the pants split right down the crotch. I am mortified. She is laughing. The other women from the other stalls are looking over and laughing. Later when I got over the fact that I split the pants, I bought a pair.

Local embroidery for sale at Bac Ha market.

One local woman dressed me up in this local garb from from her stall. I felt it would be borderline cultural appropriation to buy this whole get-up but I'm not gonna lie: I thought it looked kinda good. 

Only the best tobacco for sale at Bac Ha market. Don't forget to try before you buy. ;)

As seen in the photo above, tobacco is pretty huge in Vietnam. There are many varieties, and there is a pipe (like the ones pictured above) at just about every home, accommodation, restaurant and shop. Roll up pretty much anywhere and there will be a pipe sitting outside in a bucket for your tobacco-smoking pleasure.

There isn’t much else in Bac Ha beside the market, so Alex and I decided to borrow the guest house owner’s motorbike and go ride around. We get about 10km up the main road and see a white girl on a bike pulled over. We stop to make sure she is okay. She says she’s fine, she’s trying to get to a little town on the border of China called Si Ma Cai. I was relatively familiar with the geography of Vietnam but I hadn’t realized we were THAT close to China. When I hear this, I’m like Alex, we have nowhere else to be, we’re going to China. So we ride for another 15km or so and reach the town. There is nothing there. Not even a Banh My for us to eat. (Yes it is mostly spelled with a Y in Vietnam). I look on Google maps and see that we’re still not exactly on the border line. I'm wondering, can we get to the actual border? So I drop a pin on the border and it tells me we’re 12km away. I’m like Alex, I wanna see that fucking blue Google Maps dot on the BORDER OF CHINA, let’s go. He’s a huge adrenaline junkie so he’s down. So we’re following Google Maps which tells us to turn onto this unknown road. We follow it and basically ride the winding road through a steep mountainside. When we first get on the road, we’re at the top of the mountain. The road snakes down the mountain to what is presumably the bottom, where there should be a river, but we cannot see it yet. We follow it for as long as we can, until it starts getting really steep and narrow and muddy and I go “Alex I’m scared” and he’s like okay fine let’s just climb this really steep mountain-peak off-shoot thing instead. So we drive down this muddy ass side road to get to the peak Alex is referring to (it’s like an offshoot of the mountain itself. Not sure what the proper term is for something like that). We can barely get the bike through the mud. Flip flops are falling off and getting stuck in the swamp that is the road, but we finally park. Alex climbs first while I freak out that it’s too dangerous. Then once he’s made it to the top I have FOMO and decide I’m joining. The climb was not particularly long, maybe only 10 minutes, just kinda dangerous.  Like this: 5 feet of muddy uphill to get to the tiny path within a corn field. Then wade through 6-foot-tall corn stalks for about 50 feet, flat terrain. Then, about 10 feet of muddy uphill. Then, about 10 feet of tall-grassy-thorny-kinda-uphill. Chill at the top. Epic views. We can see the river that divides Vietnam and China. WE MADE IT. Come back down. As I'm coming down the muddy part, about to wade through the corn, some ENORMOUS flying bug approaches me at eye level. It is the size of a large wasp and it is bright red like an almost-ripe cherry. And I swear to god this thing had fangs and claws and six eyes and it was hovering in front of my face like in Honey I Shrunk The Kids when the bees are huge and hairy and just fucking dominating everything. It's bzzzzing at me and I start screaming and flailing and running through the corn like I have no idea where I’m even putting my feet, I could take a wrong step and slide at any time but it’s fight or flight and I’m just bolting the hell out of there. Alex was already back and the bike and I tell him I just had a face-off with this red fanged flying monster bug and he's like "that sounds awesome!" Like, no.

THEN we have to ride the bike back through the mud, this time uphill. It's scary only because when bikes go through mud they lose traction and slip unpredictably which is not ideal on a narrow mountain road. So the bike is sliding everywhere, we can't ride it. Alex had get off and walk the bike uphill, except it was so steep he had to turn the bike on and kinda "drive" it uphill while walking next to it for control. 100 meters of this. It was heroic. And then we rode out of there. Every local we passed on the way back up the unknown road was looking at us like ummmm whatcha doin here?

Where we were when we discovered it was only another 12km to the China border // river that separates China and Vietnam.

What the road looked like on Google Maps.

What the road looked like IRL. (This photo taken from the top of the little peak we climbed.)

A view from the ride to the border.

When we got back on the main road, it got dark quickly. We had an hour long journey ahead of us so we decided to stop for food somewhere along the way. We pull over at a roadside joint. The peeps hanging there speak zero English. We try to communicate that I don’t eat meat and Alex does eat ALL of the meat. They go grab a chicken from the back, hold it down and cut its neck right in front of us. It starts bleeding out from the neck. I’m looking at Alex like dude that’s your dinner. He's like "I literally just felt the energy from the chicken disappear." Turns out that chicken was for these other locals who just showed up in a group of five or six and had ordered the full chicken special. Alex got the shiesty chicken left over from before. Other than the shiesty chicken the food was vaaary good.

Also in Bac Ha: One night Alex and I refuse to eat western food but that is all we can find. We want proper Vietnamese food but every restaurant seemed to be catered to tourists, which was weird because it isn't even a touristy town. We will not settle so we walk up this road and eventually see a place with a few locals inside having dinner together. They wave us in to come sit with them. Older men and one woman. They’re toward the end of their meal. They want us to try all their food. Alex eats DOG. Yes you read that correctly. Not just one bite of dog. Three different parts of dog, prepared three different ways. He said it was just okay. Then the locals want us to drink rice wine with them. They keep filling up our shot glasses every time we look away. Then they insist we smoke tobacco out of the two pipes behind us. (Sorry Mom and Dad... it was just one rip!) After about 5 more shots, the locals are like (via body language, they don’t speak English) “hey we gotta bounce, the rest of the food is for you guys and we’ve already paid the bill. And you can have the bottle of rice wine.” We kill the food. No, dude, of course I didn’t eat dog. I'm pescatarian. Muahahaha. We bring the wine back to our guest house and Alex makes everyone drink as if we are in college – including the family who runs our guest house. They are totally down for this, getting a huge kick out of it. They were still finishing dinner and we all just kinda started drunkenly picking at their food while taking rice wine shots together. I don’t remember going to bed.

The full table of food that the locals fed us / left us.

Chukaaaa shots with our people back at our guest house in Bac Ha. On the table you will notice the delicacy that is chicken feet.

Me, before going to bed on this crazy chuka night, declaring that I love the decor in this guest house (those are Vietnamese skirts fanned out on the wall) and I must have a photo shoot with it. 

There is one thing in particular that made it easy for Alex and I to travel together: we both have local motives. We just love the locals more than anything and we believe they hold the key to the best experiences you can have while traveling. For this reason, we go out of our way often to find the locals and spend time with them. We meet them at roadside shops and chat them up. We meet them in restaurants. Wherever. This takes us far outside our comfort zones (ahem, remember the chicken slaughter from earlier). Sometimes when Alex would go for a ride alone I would actually get localFOMO cause I would know he was chatting up some Vietnamese person and I didn't want him to one-up me with any fun local experiences!!! 

We carried on these local motives as we moved from Bac Ha to our next stop: Cao Bang. Except before we could go to Cao Bang, for a number of logistical reasons, we had to first stop back in Hanoi. And in order to stop back in Hanoi, we had to first stop on the way in Lao Cai. So we go to Lao Cai by bus. Side note, we played every game you can imagine on these bus rides. The games would go like this: I would teach Alex a game, and then he would beat me at it. Then, I would choose the game I enjoyed losing at the most and we would play that game. Taught him the Four Letter Word Game and he was pretty good at it, especially with English as a second language. Taught him Squares, where you have to close the most boxes (HI HANNAH). And Scattergories. And games like "let's go back and forth naming every US state until we can't anymore" (we got 48) and "let's go back and forth naming every retail brand we can think of" which was SO DUMB and was Alex's idea. (Not kidding, I know you all think it was my idea. It wasn't.) 

Okay so we take the bus to Lao Cai. We arrive in the early afternoon. Plan was to leave Lao Cai in the morning to go to Hanoi so we can catch the bus from there to Cao Bang. We realize Alex left the ring from Mama Sa at the hotel in Sapa Town. We call the hotel and at first they say they can't find it but we give them vaaary specific instructions (it is in the herbal bath room, on top of the towel rack) and they find it. It's 65km from Lao Cai to Sapa so we're like fuck it, let's get a bike and go get this ring. Keep in mind this ring is worth MAYBE one penny, but it had emotional value. We rent a motorbike and start driving around 4pm. It starts raining on the way so we stop at a roadside shop where they cut up some plastic bags for us so we can stay dry. Like this:

We get to the hotel, get the ring, eat some banh my, and hit the road for the 65km drive back to Lao Cai. At this point guys I am so comfortable on the back of the bike that I'm fully, like, looking up hostels on Agoda and Hostelworld, seeing what flights to Portugal are the cheapest, taking photos, taking videos... I am straight chillin back there!

So we start driving and about 15km into the ride, we run out of gas. Like we're coming down a hill and the bike just turns off. We totally forgot to think about gas. So we pull over and wave down a local driving by. He says there is gas up the road – we had just passed it. He tells us (via body language) to jump on his bike. His daughter is also on the bike.  We leave our bike on the side of the road and the four of us ride up to the gas station, get petrol in a plastic bottle, and then ride back down to our bike and rock on. (We tried to give him $VND 10,000 which is equivalent to throwing someone a fiver in this situation but he refused.)

The next morning in Lao Cai, I take the lead on making arrangements for the bus to Hanoi. As I'm trying to book the bus through our hotel, we're having trouble communicating. A woman kinda overhears this and comes over. She is around my age. She lives just across the street and teaches English at a school in Lao Cai. She communicates very well. After helping confirm the bus for later that day, she says to me, "I would like to take you to the local market, you can pick some food, and I will make lunch for you at my home." So I'm like, um, YEAH. So I grab Alex and we go to the market and pick out some FISH, which we haven't eaten in far too long. Then we go back to Huong's house and hang out while she prepares a FEAST.

 

Those little orange prawny things were amazing, too. I ate them just like that with the head and legs on and everything. Salty little mofo's.

Huong also made us these drinks which were mostly water with lemon, lime, sugar and salt. They were delicious. Some of Huong's family came over to eat lunch with us, including her mother and her mother's mother. Her grandmother sat next to me and at one point just grabbed my shoulder and started stroking the top of my arm and smiling at me. She said something to Huong and then Huong said to me, "my grandmother has never met a westerner before. She cannot believe your skin!" Some of you may know, I really don't love my skin. I mean it's okay, but if I could change one physical thing about myself it would be my skin. And here I am being pet by this Vietnamese grandma who I just want to hug. The grass is always greener, isn't it.

We get on the bus to Hanoi and upon arrival we head to Zim's House (homestay/hostel). Alex had stayed there a couple times before we met. The first people we encounter there are friends that Alex made last time he stayed. One of them has just picked up a job in Hanoi and is kinda living at Zim's. So already I am happy with this place.

The little street in Hanoi where Zim's House is.

Hanoi Round 2. I'm not sure whether I loved Hanoi itself or I just loved the familiarity, but I got a good feeling when we got into the city. By this point all of my clothes are disgusting from being in the mountains and I am excited to send them for machine-washing service. And excited to get a manicure. We stay in Hanoi for a couple of days before taking the bus to Cao Bang. We ate lots of banh my, ate lots of bakery cakes and pastries and spent lots of time walking around Hoan Kiem Lake. One night, we went to a newly opened pub. We had been there earlier in the day and played cards and darts and met good people so we decided to come back to see what was up at night. When we arrive at the pub, they're playing 70's disco-dancey-funky-house music and the place is packed with Vietnamese hipsters around our age. They form a dance circle and for the next three hours they proceed to have a dance party where they take turns getting in the middle and breaking it down. Their dance moves were ridiculous!!! And the music was SO GOOD. I was so intimidated by these dance moves that I just couldn't get in the middle of the circle but we danced all night. The music and the vibes in this place were just in my soul. By the end of the night there was a limbo going. One local girl who I'd been eyeing all night had more limbo swag than I have ever seen.  This was one of the best nights I've had while traveling. My phone died so I don't have any pictures or videos from the dance party but here are a couple from earlier in the day:

Please notice my dart on the right... I landed it right in the crack between those two wood panels.

From the upper balcony level, looking down. Downstairs is where the epic dance party happened later this night.

I absolutely love taking my shoes off everywhere. There is something humbling about not wearing shoes that creates a relaxed, shared vibe among people.

Delish banh mi place in Hanoi.

Hoan Kiem Lake at dusk.

Me in the park that surrounds Hoan Kiem Lake.

More from from Hanoi Round 2:

1. I wore mascara one night. It was the first time I had worn makeup in three weeks. 

2. I told Alex I had a blog. He made fun of me. On a few occasions I referenced having just been at Coachella in April. Every time I said "Coachella" I got a cringing smile/laugh/eye-roll like "please stop saying Coachella, this word is not congruent with our current situation."

3. My phone went nuts. I got some GREAT backpacking advice a few years ago: always carry a spare phone with you in case something happens to your main phone. Since getting this advice I have carried a spare phone when I travel but I haven't had to use it until now. I was super happy to have the backup with me but then the backup started going nuts, too. So my phone will randomly, like, call people through Instagram and do other bizarre unprompted things. I filed an insurance claim and should have a new phone arriving in Portugal this week but it isn't here yet sooo... crazyphone it is, for now.

4. I knew I had become comfortable in the streets of Hanoi because while dodging motorbikes and cars I found myself singing... which then turned into, "I wish I had headphones with me so I could listen to Spotify while I'm walking"... which then turned into, "dammit, walking is too slow, I wish I had a motorbike in this city."

5. Nothing was ever really dry. My clothes even after machine washing were just kinda always damp. My sneakers smelled the worst.

6. Nothing was ever really comfortable. The beds were hard. The chairs were plastic step stools. It was rare to encounter a chair with a back. 

7. I started to get pretty good at guessing where people are from. Before now I found this difficult – how can you guess where someone is from just by looking at them? Can people really tell with any degree of accuracy the difference between a Frenchy and a Spaniard, or a Spaniard and an Argentinian, just by looking at their faces? Yes, they can. I might now be one of those people. 

8. I had barely looked in a mirror in three weeks. There were barely any mirrors in the hostels or homestays. The mirrors that did exist were the size of an iPad. This was hugely liberating.

9. We stumbled upon a dance recital of some sort, happening outside in some public theater area of Hanoi. There was a stage set up and lots of parents sitting in chairs cheering on their kids. We sat and watched for a while.... why do I love synchronized dancing?

Dance recital / competition in Hanoi.

After a couple of days in the city, we got the bus to Cao Bang, all the way north from Hanoi. It was a long ass bus ride and when I looked at the map to see if we were getting close, I noticed that Cao Bang is on the border of China. So, guess we didn't need to bike 30km from Bac Ha to get to border... LOLZ. When we got off the bus in the town of Cao Bang we were transferred to another bus for a two hour journey to our homestay in a village called Khoui Ky (pronounced Koh-ee Kee). I sent a Facebook message to our homestay to understand how to get there from the bus. The message I got back said: "Exit the bus about 2km before the Ban Gioc Waterfall. You will see a road on the right. After a few hundred meters there is a sign for Yen Nhi homestay." Well, we had no idea when we were gonna be 2km before the waterfall, so we missed that obviously, and got dropped off about 6km AFTER the waterfall. We started walking with our packs on. I may have already mentioned this but, even though I have packed extremely light (my big pack weighs less than 14 kilos / less than 31 pounds), I become a monster when I have this thing on my back for more than 10-12 minutes. We're trekking up this road, sweating bullets, when we see some locals and ask if they can give us a lift on their motorbike. They agree, and proceed to take us one by one (first me and then Alex) to our homestay. We throw them $VND 20,000 each. We arrive in the village of Khoui Ky and it is PERFECT. It is time to go explore Cao Bang.